Coexistence and Religious Unrest
Report by Dr. Jerome Chahine, translated by Lew Scudder
A melee between Christians and Muslims in Egypt leaves 23 dead. A series of attacks on Christians in Lebanon leaves a smaller death toll but no less loss of confidence. A civil war, often described as between the Christian south and the Muslim north, rages on in Sudan. These and other situations led the Middle East Council of Churches and the Arab Working Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue to organize a seminar to answer the questions:
- What is the state of multi-religious coexistence in the Arab world, and how is it affected by these religious conflicts?
- What is the role of religion in public life?
- How are religious conviction and extremism linked?
- How is religion exploited in political conflicts?
The seminar, held in Beirut from 9 to 11 March, 2000, drew some 80 church leaders, intellectuals, and influential members of the media from throughout the Arab world. Sessions addressed the specific situations in Egypt, Lebanon, and the Sudan, as well as broader questions of the role of religion in public life and the problem of the relationship of religion and extremism.
Coexistence, Fear and Outsiders
One of the most important themes to emerge in the conference was that of the two different fears felt by the Muslim and Christian communities. Christian communities sometimes feel threatened by the more numerous Muslim communities surrounding them. Muslims, in turn, feel threatened by the West. As Imam Muhammad Shams-ud-Din said in his opening address, "the real fear today is the renewed exploitation of minorities under the slogan of human rights and the freedom of religious belief. This is one instrument among many the world system uses to undermine the unity and stability of countries..." These two linked but distinct fears can lead to a cycle of misunderstanding and violence among the two groups. As Mr. Tariq al-Bishri said of the situation in Egypt, "[We must] clearly separate internal relations between Muslims and Christians from outside and international pressures. This would greatly reduce the fear that permeates social relations."
Another shared concern was that of interference by outside powers in the internal affairs of particular countries. Even when well-intentioned, these interventions can turn out disastrously. Dr. Tariq Mitri delivered a speech wherein he critiqued the logic that claimed that borders between religions and cultures are inevitably bloody, and that every religious minority is an extension of a larger religious community, rather than an integral part of the nation it is located in. This kind of thinking, he said, only serves to encourage people to confuse their political positions with their supposed loyalty to or fellow-feeling with their coreligionists elsewhere.
There was much optimism expressed in the case of Lebanon. Mr. Samir Franjiyyah noted that "the recovery of healthy relations between Christians and Muslims has helped to overcome crises which, had this not happened, would have led to disaster."
Going even farther than this, the Amir Harith Shihab eloquently praised those groups in Lebanon who have "transcended" their narrow confessional boundaries: "They engage in dialogue and get to know each other. They work together. They know the differences that distinguish them, and see these differences as a source of enrichment... They work to evolve a political system which, on the one hand, guarantees that no group will be dissolved, that no one party will dominate the other."
A Public Role for Religion
The conferees agreed that religion has a positive role to play in public life in a multi-religious society. Shaykh Muhammad Sa'id Ramadan al-Buti drew a distinction between politics informed by religious beliefs and religion twisted to support a political agenda: "Religion ought to lead the hearts of its true believers to overcome the politics of division, fragmentation, and alienation... This would be the case were it not for the fact that many 'Islamists' have politicized Islam and that many Christians have moved towards the politics of alienation."
Similarly, as-Sayyid Hani Fahas drew a link between the personal experience of salvation and the public experience of renaissance: "Salvation results in renewal and has public manifestations. If it did not, it would only result in disembodied mysticism. Likewise, renaissance has a salvational dimension. Were this not so, we would find ourselves repeating the Communist experience or recapitulating the dark side of the liberal experience, which achieved the condition of freedom but lost the goal."
This active participation by religion in politics not only can be reconciled with acceptance of the other, but must, as presentations by Fr. Dr. George Massuh, Fr. Samir Khalil, Dr. Walid Sayf, and others made clear. The true practitioner of religion is one who serves one's fellow human being without regard to religious allegiance, race or politics. As Dr. Sayf said, "Extremism against other religions is not caused first and foremost by ignorance of the other. It is caused by ignorance of one's own religion."
In addition to a positive exchange of views, a number of practical proposals came out of the seminar.
The session on Sudan made clear the importance of re-establishing the Sudanese Committee for Muslim-Christian Dialogue to create a forum where Sudanese Muslims and Christians of good will could work out their particular country's difficulties. The Arab Working Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue pledged to do what it could to help this come to pass.
The Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, MECC General Secretary, outlined a pair of additional proposals in his closing speech. The MECC and the Working Group, in consultation with the participants in the seminar, will draw up a set of principles, shared by Muslims and Christians, about how to hold on to coexistence and strengthen it. The document will "include practical proposals relevant to political life, the media, education, cultural activity and religion in an effort to translate these principles into action."
Finally, Dr. Jarjour called for the formation of local committees in every country to help the seminar's participants to be "ambassadors working to set up the pillars of peace, good will, love, solidarity and justice in their environments to the full extent of their considerable abilities."
First appeared in MECC NewsReport , Summer 2000